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Three Servants of God’s Poor

Fr. James H. Kroeger, MM

Living Mission  

 “Year of the Poor” Reflections

REPEATEDLY, Pope Francis has explicitly stated that he wants “a Church which is poor and for the poor.”  As the “Year of the Poor” declared by the CBCP draws to a close, we realize that our commitment must be fervent and constant.  We can take encouragement from the lives of three servants of the poor.

Peter Claver, born in Spain in 1580, entered the Society of Jesus in 1602.  In 1610 he sailed for the missions, arriving in Cartegena (modern Colombia), the principal slave market of the New World.  Approximately a thousand Negro slaves arrived every month.  Ordained in 1616, he dedicated himself by a special vow to the service of slaves from Western Africa for 33 years.

Peter waited for the slave ships to arrive with their human cargo.  Then, he and his interpreters, carrying baskets of food, would board the ships and greet the slaves.  Peter would also go down into the stench-filled holds to minister to the sick and dying.  When the slaves were brought ashore, he visited them, gave them religious instruction, and ministered to their needs until they were sold and transported to other parts of South America.

Peter himself said that he must have baptized about 300,000 of them.  He tried to follow them to the plantations, encouraging them to live as Christians.  He tried to prevail upon their masters to treat them humanely.  His service to the poor extended until his death in 1654; he is rightly known as the “Saint of the Slave Trade.”

Vincent de Paul, born in 1581 in France, was radically committed to serving Jesus by serving the poor.  He founded a religious community, Congregation of the Mission (the Vincentians), for two purposes: the formation of priests and service of the poor.  He viewed these two goals as intimately interrelated.

For Saint Vincent, in imitation of Jesus, “we ought to have his same spirit and imitate Christ’s actions, that is, we must take care of the poor, console them, help them, support their cause….  If you consider the poor in the light of faith, then you will observe they are taking the place of the Son of God who chose to be poor….  Since God surely loves the poor, he also loves those who love the poor.”

“It is our duty to prefer the service of the poor to everything else and to offer such service as quickly as possible….  Do not become upset or feel guilty because you interrupted your prayer to serve the poor….  One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out….  Charity is certainly greater than any rule.”

Jean Vanier, a committed Catholic layman, founded the first L’Arche in France in 1964.  The closest English word to the French L’Arche is Ark, a safe and secure place to live.  Today, there are nearly 150 communities in 35 countries, including the Philippines.

A L’Arche home is a special form of community where people with developmental disabilities (psychological, physical, medical, etc.) live in community.  These people, though often shunned and rejected by the world, live together with their care-takers.  The

L’Arche community message is that the poor and weak are potentially a source of life, hope and peace to others.

The spirituality of L’Arche incorporates “an inward movement towards God hidden in the depths of our own vulnerability, and an outward movement towards our brothers and sisters, especially those who are poor and in need.”  For Vanier, “To live with Jesus is to live with the poor.  To live with the poor is to live with Jesus.”  Serving the Poor is Serving Jesus.

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